Incrementalism is a model of the policy process advanced by Charles Lindblom, who views rational decision making as impossible for most issues due to a combination of disagreement over objectives and an inadequate knowledge base. Policies are made instead through a pluralistic process of partisan mutual adjustment in which a multiplicity of participants focus on proposals differing only incrementally from the status quo. Significant policy change occurs, if at all, through a gradual accumulation of small changes, a process Lindblom calls seriality. While Lindblom sees nonincremental policy departures as extremely rare, subsequent research suggests that major policy departures may occur in response to crises or mass public arousal, through the development of a rationalizing breakthrough after many years of experience with policy implementation, or through a process of punctuated equilibrium. While many scholars and policymakers have argued that nonincremental alternatives may at times be superior to incremental ones, implementing nonincremental policy departures poses special problems and often gives way to incrementalism in the administrative process as public attention and support for strong action wane. Nonincremental policy departures are more likely to be both enduring and effective where long experience with an issue leads to consensus on values and an adequate knowledge base, giving rise to a rationalizing breakthrough. Properly understood, incrementalism is a form of what Sowell termed systemic rationality. The policy process would work more efficiently if all participants recognized the superiority of systemic rationality over what Sowell calls articulated rationality, just as Lindblom does in arguing the superiority of incrementalism over the synoptic ideal. For all its problems, our current system of polarized parties fails to eliminate the need for incrementalism. To the contrary, conditional party government makes possible a new form of partisan incrementalism that offers some advantages over traditional incrementalism.
Syria is in tatters. A brutal dictator, vicious terrorist groups, and a raging civil war have led to the death of hundreds of thousands and the displacement of millions. Given the ongoing Syrian conflict, President Barack Obama’s rather restrained foreign policy toward the Bashar al-Assad regime has been described as “feckless,” “flawed,” and “clueless.” In August 2012, however, President Obama issued a strong warning when he famously said the “red line” for the United States in terms of stepping up a military offensive would be if “we started seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.” Beginning in 2013, the Damascus regime did utilize chemical weapons against the Syrian people, perhaps most shockingly in August in the Ghouta suburbs of Damascus. Yet President Obama ultimately held back from intervening militarily, and his decision has since received strong and persistent criticism. After retiring from his post as secretary of defense, Robert Gates judged the president’s decision a “serious mistake.” It allowed the tragedy to continue and American credibility to be hurt. The president himself, however, disagreed. About the decision not to act militarily he said later: “I’m very proud of this moment.” He was convinced that the United States could not successfully affect the situation and that he had kept the country out of another quagmire. It is indeed the case that good decisions can avoid wars or win them while bad decisions can start wars or lose them, and these consequences are just one reason why the study of foreign policy mistakes is so important. Yet it can, of course, not be the case that an evaluation of foreign policy decisions is rendered to the subjective eyes of the beholder. Instead, what is needed is an objective framework by which to identify and analyze foreign policy mistakes. Foreign policy mistakes are procedural errors concerning the diagnostic or the prescriptive level of the foreign policy decision-making task. They can be mistakes of omission or commission and can occur in regard to a threat or to an opportunity. Of special importance is the question how foreign policy mistakes can be avoided. This question can be answered through a decision-making framework defined by (a) the level of information a leader can have about a foreign policy challenge and (b) the potential consequences of a decision. Because many, if not most, challenges with respect to questions of international security are “ill-defined,” the myopic strategy of disjointed incrementalism is ideal. It avoids mistakes by making reversible (disjointed) and relatively small (incremental) moves away from the status quo. In the case of Syria, President Obama followed a strategy of disjointed incrementalism. He could not rely on much certain or reliable information regarding the situation and correctly understood that a military engagement could have potentially very adverse consequences in terms of casualties and a general escalation of the situation. Contrary to often repeated judgments that his decision not to engage militarily was a mistake, it is the case that he indeed avoided a mistake.